The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke begins with the invocation of the emperor, his wishes, and everyone following his command. He desired a census and everyone jumped to fulfill the task.
There is no hint of distaste here. No little jab at the Caesar, his authority, or even his claim to be divine.
He commands and people listen.
Even pregnant women. Even a certain unwed pregnant mother.
Honestly, it’s a brilliant beginning to a story. It’s regal. It’s magical, like a beginning of a Disney princess movie.
And the magic and wonder doesn’t stop there, for we are then treated to the appearance of a battalion of angels who are singing and telling of wonders. Their appearance was so amazing that we’re a told that the onlookers were terrified.
They were, apparently, awesome. Terrifyingly awesome.
Is this a great story or what?!
But, then there’s the other details.
Who do the angels flock to? Shepherds.
Simple, smelly, working-the-midnight-shift shepherds.
Really? Couldn’t the angels have chosen a better audience? Couldn’t they have alighted on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem? Couldn’t they have entered the courts of the palace?
Shepherds? In a field? Surrounded by sheep poop?
Like many other blue-collar workers working third-shift, these guys would have been forgotten. Invisible. Looked at with suspicion and pity.
And… the angels sang to them.
And, if that isn’t enough, this story that began so regally with talk of emperors, the “whole world,” and terrifying angels… ends up in a manger.
With more animals.
Because there was no room anywhere else for the story to take place.
It had to be moved.
There WERE grander plans, for sure. Because who PLANS to give birth in a barn?
But, those plans had to be scuttled.
The beginning of this story is important. It’s not just a cute story. Don’t wax too poetic about the shepherds, and sheep, and donkeys, and oxen.
Animals are lovely. But they smell. Ever been in a barn?
You can bet your bottom dollar that the original bearers of Luke’s Gospel knew what a bunch of animals smelled like. They may have even walked through their grazing fields in sandals.
In a story that begins with emperors and angels, the turn to shepherds and mangers is abrupt. Don’t miss that, just because the story is familiar – and the little kids in the church pageant are just so cute.
Luke writes this story with whiplash built into the warp and woof. He starts out grand and majestic, and moves to the earthy and homely very quick.
I think he does that to emphasize the humble beginnings of Our Savior. The humble birth that Our Lady endured. And the frightening night some unsuspecting shepherds had.
The effects of Jesus upon humanity, the creation, and the whole cosmos is awesome. But, Jesus’ birth is like the little spark that sets off the thermonuclear chain of events.
Don’t just “ooo” and “ahhh” at the little baby. He’s not just a “small-town-boy-made-good.”
He’s the hope of the world, the Author of Salvation, and the Messiah foretold by prophets for nearly a millenium.
Oh, and watch out for the whiplash.